Council pledges allegiance to Brooks’ plan

Instead of getting down to the nuts and bolts, Oak Harbor City Council members re-pledged their support Tuesday night for consultant Roger Brooks’ $32 million tourism master plan.

They said they are optimistic about his ideas and the likelihood that money will be found to pay for them. Several council members argued that the plan has to work this time around because so many have failed in the past. This might be the city’s last shot at tourism and economic nirvana, they said.

“We must do something and we must do it now,” Councilwoman Sheilah Crider said. “The opportunity is there and the community support is there.”

In fact, city leaders discussed few specifics of the plan and few details about how it will be funded. Councilman Richard Davis cut off a discussion about the problems with funding, calling such concerns “minutiae.”

Brooks provided the council with a budget for his plan last Tuesday, which he said was incomplete because he wasn’t given enough time to present it fully. Brooks wasn’t able to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

Only Mayor Patty Cohen and Councilman Paul Brewer expressed any concerns about Brooks’ plan. After council members made ranging and lengthy comments about their economic philosophies, the importance of tourism and the need to commit to the Brooks’ plan, Brewer questioned the purpose of the meeting.

“How many times do we need to have a meeting and say we are committed to it?” he asked. He also said the plan should contain economic development strategies for other parts of the city.

Mayor Patty Cohen led Tuesday’s discussion, posing a series of what she called “good, hard questions.”

“We need to make sure this proposal makes economic sense, tourism sense, business sense and investment sense,” she said.

She questioned how Brooks’ plan would make the city any different from other waterfront communities, how his “generic logo” would make the city stand out, what the ultimate purpose of the plan is, and how the minimum-wage salaries brought in by tourism would help the city’s job-seeking residents.

City Administrator Thom Myers also asked the council members for their questions about the project budget, which he said Finance Director Doug Merriman would try to answer for the next meeting.

Merriman said he already has a list of 27 questions for Brooks about the proposed budget.

One of Brooks’ critical funding sources already looks in doubt. Cohen said she spoke to Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell about the 0.08 sales tax funds, which the commissioners distribute countywide. In his budget, Brooks suggested that Oak Harbor could receive a bulk of the funds, about $500,000 a year.

“It’s probably further than the commissioners are willing to go at this time,” she said.

Cohen said the new Council of Governments, a body that represents elected officials from the entire county, will be in charge of making recommendations about the .08 funds to the commissioners.

This upset several council members, who argued that the city would get an unfair shake from the Council of Governments. Brewer pointed out that a large portion — 40 percent — of the .08 funds are generated in Oak Harbor, so the city should get the lion’s share of the money. But Oak Harbor only gets one vote on the Council of Governments, equal to other towns and port districts.

Only Councilman Eric Gerber presented specific ideas about the plan and its budget. He asked the administration to look into several creative funding ideas he had, including using sewer funds and park impact fees for portions of the plan.

In addition, he asked if it was feasible to budget $600,000 a year for 20 years from the general fund to pay the debt service on a loan.

While Brooks has insisted that the council implement the plan in its entirety, Cohen also asked how much flexibility the council members feel there should be. She asked, for example, if the plan would restrict the usage of land in the future — if the site of the convention center must be at the spot Brooks identified.

The council members, however, said there should be plenty of flexibility in the plan and that it may change over time.

“It’s more of a vision,” Brewer said. “It’s not set in stone.”

Crider agreed that it’s just “a concept.”

“It’s a fluid document that does not specifically nail down every site in the community,” she said.

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